Rick Holmes, an award-winning journalist and longtime GateHouse Media columnist, is on the road in search of the ties that bind Americans — and the forces that pull them apart. With all eyes on Washington, Rick reports from real places too often reduced to primary colors on an election map.
South Kingstown, R.I. — No signs direct tourists to the historic site, no interpretive markers explain its significance, and there’s no place to park. The only clue is the road sign, reading “Great Swamp Monument Drive,” and it sidesteps the question of what it’s a monument to.
The dirt road ends quickly at a closed gate. I pulled off the road and hiked about a mile on a grassy road through swampy woods. There was not a hint of another human anywhere near. The air was thick with bugs, humidity and ancient sorrow.
The path came to a circular clearing. At its center, a mound covered with wildflowers was pierced by a 20-foot granite shaft, surrounded by four squat stone blocks. I had found the spot where the Narragansett Indians built their fortress, at the center of a swamp they considered impenetrable, hiding from war.
An unwarranted attack
It was 1675, and the good feelings between Indians and English settlers we celebrate each November in the story of the first Thanksgiving had long ago soured. Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag tribe had made peace with the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, but he was dead. Colonists were taking Indian lands, subjecting Indians to English laws and converting them to English religion. Metacomet, son of Massasoit, pushed back. The Wampanoag leader assembled a confederation of tribes to fight the invaders. They attacked and burned villages, scalping the men and abducting women and children. The settlers responded with the same ferocity.
But the Narragansetts wanted no part of Metacomet’s war. They declared neutrality and signed treaties with Massachusetts and Connecticut. Fearful that might not be enough to prevent an unprovoked attack, they abandoned their villages and hid here in the Great Swamp.
In December the colonists attacked anyway, aided by a deep freeze that made the impenetrable swamp easier to enter. They found a huge wooden structure with 500 or more wigwams inside, housing thousands of Indian men, women and children.
After hours of furious fighting, the English pushed their way into the fort, and drove most of the Indian warriors outside. Then they went through the settlement, setting fire to the wigwams and shooting anyone who tried to escape.
No one counted the bodies, but historians estimate as many as 500 to 1,000 Narragansetts were shot or incinerated, most of them women and children. The colonists called it a battle. The natives, along with modern-day historians, call it the Great Swamp Massacre.
The fighting got worse after that, with more villages burned and more people killed, but we all know who won. Metacomet – the English called him King Philip — met his end at Mount Hope, a village on the other side of Narragansett Bay. Shot by an Indian working with the colonists, Metacomet’s body was drawn and quartered – cut into four pieces. His head was sent to Plymouth, where it was stuck on a pike outside the Colony’s gates as a warning to other natives. It stayed there for years.
Things went from bad to worse for the Narragansetts. Their villages burned, many of those who escaped the massacre died in the cold. Others were rounded up and executed. Some were sold into slavery, or forced to work as indentured servants in settler villages. Bit by bit, their land was stolen. Their language outlawed, their customs forbidden. They were forced into schools to learn the white man’s ways. In 1882, the Rhode Island Legislature “detribalized” the Narragansetts, declaring the tribe dead.
A monument and a story to be shared
All was silent when I got to the clearing. As I examined the granite blocks, I saw that each was marked with the name of a colony that sent its militias into battle: Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This was a monument to the victors, with no mention of the victims of the massacre.
The Narragansetts had been erased by the authorities, which is a form of genocide. But they hadn’t disappeared. They continued to meet in secret and to practice tribal customs.
In the 1930s, Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett historian and storyteller, learned that prominent white people were hosting “Victorian teas” at the site of the massacre. She and other tribal leaders protested to the state, Loren Spears of the Tomaquag Museum told me later, and the granite shaft was added to the memorial. Through their activism, the tribe achieved federal recognition, 100 years after the state had tried to kill it.
Once a year, Narragansetts meet at the memorial for songs, storytelling and a ritualized “wailing” by the women for those killed in the massacre. Elders recently wrote a new song about what happened in the Great Swamp, in part to keep their ancient language alive, but also because it is a story that must be told.
But it’s not just their story, it’s our story and it ought to be shared with all Americans. The annihilation of the Native Americans didn’t begin with the Trail of Tears and it didn’t end at Wounded Knee. It began with a bloody war in New England now all but forgotten, and a massacre in a place you can’t even find on a map.
— Rick Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.